You know the old gag: set a dozen chimpanzees in front of a set of typewriters, and sooner or later they would type out every sentence in the English language, no matter how fatuous or banal? Yeah, but let’s make it a race! Who would win, chimps or film critics?
Well, call me a specist if you will, but I’m saying that one film critic could take down a trillion chimpanzees typing for a trillion years. Case in point is a recent microcosm of the macrocosm, film critic Gary Giddins NYT review of Orson Welles: Hello Americans, volume 2 of film critic Simon Callow’s monster monster bio of film god Orson Welles. Giddins concedes that volume 2 is chock full of “pointlessly long paragraphs, an obsession with insignificant details â€¦, and excessive excerpts from reviews and previously unexamined files,” but concludes nevertheless that the 507-page tome is “a far more levelheaded and illuminating work than its [587-page] predecessor.”
Why do I doubt Giddins’ critical acumen? It’s a lot of little things, like his comparison of Citizen Kane and Chimes at Midnight: “The first film revolutionized cinema, yet merely hints at the sublimity of the later work.”
I saw Chimes at Midnight back in the day (it’s unavailable now) and found it a complete bore. Pauline Kael, whose devotion to Orson exceeded mine by a factor of about ten thousand, gamely described it as “another near masterpiece.”* So close, so close! Poor Orson! If only he had made a film that was actually good, then people would see how great he was!**
*Kael reviewed the film as “Falstaff” (it’s a compendium of the scenes involving Falstaff from three of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V) in her overview of Welles’ career, “There ain’t no way” in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
**For a decidedly more respectful treatment of the Orson Welles legend, well, read Callow’s books if you like. If you haven’t got the time, try the Orson Welles website. Among other things, there’s a great shot of the Indianapolis mansion (no longer existing) that Booth Tarkington had in mind when he wrote The Magnificent Ambersons.